Most popular American artist? The reputation of the Bootblack Raphael was sky-high in his own lifetime. It has dipped considerably since.
“ We have no more popular artist in America than J.G. Brown. He is more certain of his audience, and more direct in his appeal to it than any other.” 1882 Harper’s Weekly.
“I stand today where I did forty years ago. I believe in the people and consider it enough for one man’s life work to interpret what the people like.” JGB in New York Times 1904
In the late twentieth century a retrospective set out to remind America of its past master. Country Paths and City Sidewalks: The Art of J. G. Brown Exhibition at George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts. 1989. Catalogue by Martha J Hoppin. 50 works on show.
The New York Times was unimpressed:
“In Brown's formulaic and insipid work, no one is a threat; hardly anyone is even real.”
“He is one of the leaders of what might be called the ''Aw, Shucks'' School of American art.” New York Times Review By MICHAEL BRENSON, Friday, September 1, 1989
Four years later he was still being called a “Lesser known” and damned with faint praise.
"It remains only to say that Brown, one of several lesser knowns in the show, proves himself a competent painter in it and in his study of a young woman reclining on sand dunes." New York Times, ART; The Good Life as Led a Century Ago VIVIEN RAYNOR, Sunday, May 9, 1993
Brown was born near Durham on 11 Nov 1831. No further detail seems to be recorded of his family background.
At 14 he left school and started working in the glass industry in Newcastle. Glass was one of the trades identified early on by William Bell Scott as likely to provide boys for his evening drawing classes at the newly formed Newcastle School of Design. Scott came to Newcastle in 1841 to run a design school backed by local charity and a government grant. The school was still in its early un-reformed state when Brown attended classes. Later it would become part of the Government Art School system run from South Kensington. In the 1840s the master, Bell Scott, still had a great deal of independence. However he was committed to teaching the careful copying and drawing which would be useful to the boys in their trade. Fellow students at the time Brown attended included the later President of the Bewick Club, Henry Hetherington Emmerson.
The Government schools at that time were intended to teach art skills to those working in industry. Bell Scott was criticised for running a class for genteel lady art lovers. Indeed in the years (1845-52) in which JGB attended classes the running of the school was frequently criticised by its central government sponsors, partly in the shape of the inspector, artist William Dyce.
In the year 1844-5 the official report recorded that there were 9 boys under 15 attending classes. 18 boys were between 15 and 20 and 4 over 20. So the school was small. Bell Scott later stated that he believed in giving his pupil’s individual attention and encouraging them to practice their exercises out of school. There is no reason to suppose that he treated young JGB differently.
The glass trade was the largest art-related trade in Newcastle at the time. However the official report for 1845 was sceptical of the ability of the school to sustain itself in the years to come. More finance was needed and the committee should “induce the pupils to attend with more constancy and permanence; the average duration of attendance being little more than three months.”
By 1850 the school reports made easier reading for Bell Scott. There was still a good cohort of boys from the glass trade. However it was noted that two of the youngest boys (so not by then JGB we can assume) were being deliberately kept to “geometrical drawing” under the impression that if they learnt too much they would be “set above their business”. The glass trade in Newcastle at that time had become resistant to change and this would eventually be its downfall. Indeed the government school report stated as much in 1850: the trade was pre-dominantly one in which the glass of the middle ages was reproduced complete with fake dust.
Many other trades were by this time represented in the classes and the committee reported that attendance was improving: boys were staying longer and attending more regularly. In 1849 they moved premises: from the Academy of Arts building Blackett Street to the rooms previously occupied by the Society of Antiquaries at the Lit and Phil. This was near the Museum of Natural History.
It is worth recording that a key cultural moment during JGB’s time in Newcastle occurred in summer 1848: the polytechnic exhibition. This complex exhibition featured art and science, industry and craft in a series of crammed rooms in the Academy of Arts building and the Music Hall next door. The show pre-figured the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 and for a time entered local folklore as the polly-nick-sticks show.
By the end of his time with William Bell Scott in Newcastle JGB would have acquired some proficiency in painting. By 1852 a new era was being ushered in. The Newcastle School was one of many which had adopted a hierarchical approach to teaching allowing the better students to acquire advanced art skills. Based on old academy-style teaching the student could advance through the drawing course to a painting course in which he or she worked in colour, from casts and from nature. They might also do some basic “modelling” ie sculpture.
In addition Brown may have attended two lectures given in 1851 by RALPH NICHOLSON WORNUM on ancient and classical art. A crowd of 400 turned up for each of these.
Interestingly the school reports also tell us that the students’ work was continually on display. Members of the public could pay a penny to be shown around the rooms.
Brown moved to Edinburgh in 1852 studying part-time under Scott Lauder at the Trustees Academy while working in the Holyrood Glass Works. The glass works was located in the Canongate: the historic street that by the mid-nineteenth century had developed into an industrialised area with accompanying slum dwellings.
The Trustees Academy however was held in the New Town in one of the key buildings of the Nineteenth century development of Edinburgh: the Royal Institution Building on The Mound.
In 1760 the Board of Trustees for Fisheries, Manufacturers and Improvements in Scotland (est. 1726), established The Trustees Drawing Academy, which became known eventually as The Trustees School of Art. Classes were originally situated at Picardy Place, but moved to The Mound in 1826. It promoted the art of drawing for the use of manufacture. However the Master of the School was always a fine artist, the first being French painter William Delacour and subsequent masters included Alexander Runciman and David Allan. The school would not join the South Kensington scheme until 1858. Hence Scott Lauder was still able to offer an individualistic teaching regime to his pupils when JGB attended.
JGB won second prize in the annual competition for a drawing from the antique ie from the collection of casts. Lauder was innovative in the way he arranged the cast collection, emphasising light and shade rather than dull detail. JGB was still working in the glass trade. He would later relate how his workshop gave him three cheers when he won the prize.
Turning down the chance to stay on at the Trustees and unable to find suitable work in London, he emigrated to the United States of America in 1853, aged 22.
In New York he continued as he had hoped in Edinburgh and London: working in the glass trade, trying to improve his art skills and intending to set up as an independent artist. The difference was that in New York he had money in his pocket.
“Why in the first week I earned four and twenty dollars. My board and lodging only ate up seven and my washing – well ran to three dollars and fifty cents. This left me fourteen dollars clear. I had never seen such a sum before!”
He enrolled at Brooklyn’s Graham Art School and listed himself in the Brooklyn trade directory as a portrait painter.
Within a year he was married to the company owner’s daughter. A short spell of independence was halted by his father-in-law’s death and the collapse of the company – a yellow fever epidemic followed by a credit crunch-style economic crisis. Instead of returning to jobbing glass work JGB signed up for classes at the National Academy of Design and began to send work to the large open exhibitions. From this point onwards he regularly showed with the Brooklyn Art Association and the National Academy of Design. He also began a long friendship with the wood engraver Samuel P Avery. Avery would become a full time gallerist in the 1860s. When JGB first knew him he was running “Art gatherings” in his Brooklyn home. JGB’s new connections led him in 1860 to move to a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, New York. He stayed there 53 years becoming its longest running tenant.
The building was specially designed for art use. In the heart of Manhattan at 51 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues it was partly responsible for establishing Greenwich Village as an art community. Alas it no longer exists, pulled down in 1956. (Slide includes present day view, 1997 Washington University catalogue and Worthington Whittredge in His Tenth Street Studio, Emanuel Leutze, 1865)
JGB lived at first in Brooklyn, then New Jersey and finally moved to New York in 1869.
Initially his painting resembled English and Scottish genre art.
Compare Harvey and Lees from National Gallery of Scotland to this Curling in Central Park scene.
Compare also MacTaggart to the child paintings of 1860s
Indeed in this painting of 1867, the young artist studies a still life in front of a copy of the Blind Fiddler by Wilkie.
Compare his female-in-the-woods figure painting (Thus Perish the memory of our Love) with works by Millais and by Hughes.
Compare also the Music Lesson with Hunt’s Awakening Conscience.
Indeed through his early membership in the American Watercolor Society (founded in New York City in 1866), Brown was associated with the American pre-Raphaelite movement. In particular he knew and collaborated with Charles Herbert Moore.
We know that Brown in turn had followers among his fellow New York artists amongst whom he was not alone in his child, rural and genre scenes: compare his Picnic Party in the Woods with Samuel Carr’s Pic-Nic Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Compare also Henry Mosler’s umbrella painting with JGB’s parasol in the same year.
Among the tenants in the Tenth Street Studio building were Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer.
Whilst both these artists acknowledge the events of the Civil War in their work, war and social upheaval rarely feature in JGB’s output.
Examples are The Young Recruits and The Deerhunter in the woods
In the 1860s and 70s both Johnson and Homer shared a subject matter with Brown. Later they would diverge considerably from the path Brown would follow.
That this was the case depended partly on the three artists responses to travel to Europe. Brown crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1870 accompanied by a New York art dealer. They visited “Scotland and England” were most impressed by Turner and then set off for France. Their stay however was cut short by the advancing Prussians (in July 1870 one assumes).
According to Martha Hoppin he may have crossed the Atlantic on one other occasion in 1885. We do not know if in 1870 or 1885 JGB came near home or family. Hoppin states that the visits had no effect on his art. Indeed he would advise young Americans to go abroad to complete their training after they had developed their individual style at home. He felt though the American should always return to paint American subject matter.
Winslow Homer of course travelled to Europe, to Cullercoats in 1881 surely at Brown’s recommendation. He would return to paint American subject matter indeed the time spent in the North East was a water-shed in his career.
Brown’s later work was dominated by paintings of street children, mainly boys. Often the children act out little dramas. Frequently there is a studied cuteness which today’s viewers may find cloying. Indeed as witnesses to social conditions the paintings seem rose-tinted to say the least. The end of the nineteenth century sees social documentary photography highlight the plight of the urban poor as never before. New York in particular was the subject of the work of Jacob Riis (1849 - 1914) and his follower Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940).
However Brown would have 20th century followers of a sort: New York was home to the Ash Can School in the early years of the century. Their subject was frequently urban and lower-class although their primary inspiration was French, not English, painting.
In a late interview Brown said:
“When J.G. Brown is no more, those who come after me will be rummaging about this studio and they will discover scores of canvases which will show, I hope, that I was not a painter of one idea.”
Perhaps there were just too many boot boys stacked away for that to be possible.
J.G. Brown, The Bootblack Raphael, Pierce Rice, American Art and Antiques, 1979 pp90-97;
Country paths and City Side walks: The Art of J.G. Brown, Martha Hoppin, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield , Massachusetts, 1989.
The development of the glass industry on the rivers Tyne and Wear, 1700-1900 Authors: Ross, Catherine Mary Issue Date: 1982 Publisher: Newcastle University http://hdl.handle.net/10443/192
Page 1 of 12
Lecture delivered Monday 19th October, Newcastle Arts Centre, Westgate Road. Part of the Visions strand of the Explore Membership Scheme of the North East Centre for Lifelong Learning.